Chita's Chinese Market

Chita | 21.11.2012 | Issue 5019

After a bad night on a lumpy bed and a struggle to get up at what would be 2 a.m. Moscow time, I couldn't stomach the watery breakfast of pale, congealed eggs — a so-called "omelet." The cold pancakes with fluorescent yellow jam, though, were edible. In the afternoon I paid a visit to the city's markets.

The Sya Ya shopping mall in Chita is also known as the Chinese market. It is a large turquoise and red building a little beyond the center of the city, at one corner of the busy intersection of Ulitsa Bogomyakogo and Ulitsa Babushkina.

Sya Ya consists of four floors of kiosks selling everything from cell phones, winter clothing, shoes, underwear and curtains to children's toys. There are two places to get a bite to eat: the Samurai Restaurant and the Sa Ya Café.

Roughly half the people working there appeared to be Chinese, and spoken Chinese — or pigeon Russian with a Chinese lilt — was a common sound.

I had wanted to take some photos, but the halls were dimly lit and all the traders who I asked refused outright. "I will have lots of problems if I let you," said a Chinese man selling shoes — and I had not even asked to photograph him, only a stack of boots. The next-door kiosk was unattended.

When you step outside of Sya Ya, you step into Chita's Central Market, the stalls of which lick up to Sya Ya on three sides. The goods appeared to be much the same, but almost all the traders were ethnic Russians or Kyrgyz.

There was a lot more willingness to chat and to let me take photographs.

Apart from a few Soviet-built two-story structures, the clothes, household utensils and food were being hawked from stands clustered together outside, in narrow alleys.

All the people that I spoke with said that everything being sold here was imported from China — just like Sya Ya.

The key difference was, of course, ownership. Sya Ya has Chinese owners. And they have not had an easy time.

Less than a decade old, Sya Ya's early history was marred by bloodshed, Anatoly Kvasov, the deputy editor at Zabakailsky Rabochi — a daily paper in the city — told me earlier in the day. The original Chinese owner was murdered in Chita and the site sat deserted for half a year afterwards.

After two days in Chita, it is clear there is a significant Chinese presence in the city. But it should not be exaggerated — Russian is the predominant language you hear on the streets.

And China is not the only country that has left its footprint here.

Tomorrow I have several meetings with local politicians and am hoping to attend a public meeting, which promises to be stormy, where environmentalists will argue with officials over how to conserve the Amur river basin.

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